(originally posted in Pipecandy Newsletter #94) In November of 2019, Whatsapp introduced product catalogs. The rapid growth of messenger eCommerce in recent years shows that eCommerce is truly an industry where infrastructure grows faster than the merchants do. While messenger eCommerce has seen great success in India and China, can the idea of buying and selling on a messenger platform ever take off in the United States?
For most of our US readers, Whatsapp is yet another Asian immigrant who is supposed to be good, become upper-middle-class very quickly and yet confusing as hell. There are several things about Whatsapp that isn’t commonplace in the US. For one, it is a protocol to send sloppily cropped ‘Good morning’ messages to the man who carries a cylinder of cooking gas on his shoulders climbing up 3 flights of stairs because he couldn’t use the apartment elevators (or lifts as they are called in India). By grudgingly delivering unsolicited ‘Good morning’ messages, Whatsapp has built a loyal network of 400M users in India. Secondly, India’s financial systems live in 2119. Through the UPI (a real protocol and not one for sending unlimited photos) one can send money just like how you would chat with them. Scan a code or simply select a contact and click ‘Send’. About 12.5 million individuals and 142 banks use BHIM (the app powered by UPI) as of August 2019, and a total of 10 billion transactions worth $19 billion were recorded. This is only about to get bigger as the NCPI is working on enabling UPI abroad, starting with the UAE and Singapore. Thirdly, for the vast majority of Indian internet users, YouTube, Whatsapp, and TikTok are the internet. Not websites! Lastly, enterprising housewives and traders use Whatsapp for commerce - by sending one image (which isn’t a ‘Good Morning’ message) at a time via chat. They sell anything from electric fuses to wedding attire making anything from pocket money for lays chips to crores (our way of saying 10M. You aren’t the only one having a weird metric system) every month.
Now put these together - network, frictionless money, familiar interface, and commerce through chat. Sounds like a better concoction than Shopify or Amazon? Maybe not yet but think about this - a simple incremental feature like a catalog will now power multiple hundreds of millions in GMV. Over 5 million small businesses use Whatsapp for business (one million of those from India). Compare this with Amazon which has about 6 million merchants and Shopify with its million merchants. The day Whatsapp allows inventory and ordering on its platform, we will see a truly big eCommerce platform that would rival the best. The next billion internet users are from emerging markets. They may be relatively poorer but they leapfrogged the web and the credit card. Whatsapp is the winner so far in that world. Keep an eye out. Amazon’s nemesis is not Walmart. Shopify’s nemesis is not Square. Such companies lose out to the cold, brutal slap of customer indifference and fade into irrelevance. What if Whatsapp, just like WeChat, enables local commerce? What if retail leapfrogs eCommerce and goes all in for ‘messenger’ driven commerce? I don’t know but it’s these ‘What ifs’ on the infrastructure side that make eCommerce an exciting industry to be in!
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